Pop, derived from the word "popular," is a genre that's continually hard to define. Pop music shifts constantly, but over time, it has been known to include catchy melodies and hooks, repeated choruses, and widespread appeal. Today, pop music borders on a lot of rap and dance music, but at its core, the aforementioned qualities define it.
Picking a list of The 50 Best Pop Album Covers of the Past Five Years is hardly an easy task, but it's one that reveals a lot about how these album covers work. Especially in the context of recent pop releases—Katy Perry's Prism, Lady Gaga's ARTPOP, Sky Ferreira's Night Time, My Time, and M.I.A.'s Matangi—one realizes the tendency for pop covers to be direct facial portraits, sometimes without much more styling or design.
When it comes to more indie releases, the imaging naturally gets more experimental. Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion is an abstract optical illusion, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs photographed a fist crushing an egg for It's Blitz, and three versions of Santigold pose in front of a painting of herself for Master of My Make Believe.
This list includes pop albums that came out between November 8, 2008 and today. Enjoy this visual tour of pop music, and its best covers, from the last five years.
Release date: Dec. 10, 2010
Cover art: Kadir Nelson
Art direction: Christina Rodriguez, Sheri Lee
Labels: Epic, MJJ
The first release of new Michael Jackson music after his death in 2009, Michael features a brilliant, multifaceted painting by renowned author, illustrator, and painter Kadir Nelson. Nelson, who has painted the likes of Marvin Gaye and later the album cover for Drake's Nothing Was the Same, here created something that at first glance looks like a collage of highlights from Jackson's career. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear this is an intricate painting meant to represent the ups, downs, and struggles of one of the greatest pop artists in history (of which there were many). We get Michael and all his most important moments: Michael preening for Off The Wall, the tabloid cover from a Weekly World issue, and the cherubs crowning him—one black, one white. Bubbles fills the bottom left of the picture, a reference to Jackson's pet chimp—the nods to MJ's life are numerous.
It's as much a puzzle for fans to unravel as it is a retrospective of one incredible man's incredible life. Nelson's ability to surmise and synergize Jackson's struggles is phenomenal. At one point this artwork was erected in Middlesex, England as a 29,000-square-foot mural, making it the largest poster in the history of the world. Jackson was always larger than life. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: Oct. 10, 2011
Photography: Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin
Art direction: M/M (Paris)
Labels: One Little Indian, Polydor
Bjork's Biophilia album was groundbreaking (as the Icelandic artist so often is) not just for its music, but for its presentation. It is an app album, with music that can be played through ten different iPad apps and through one "mother" app. The artwork was groundbreaking as well.
The firm M/M Paris (consisting of Mathis Augustyniak and Michael Amzalag) earned a 2013 Grammy award for the packaging of the album, which was photographed by Inez and Vinoodh. The cover featured dreamlike photos of Bjork in various designer garb: a huge wig by Eugene Souleiman, a dress by Iris van Herpen, a world-champion-like belt designed by threeASFOUR.
And of course, mystical as ever, Bjôrk holds a bright-orange geode. The disparate elements of the photograph themselves could stand to be on an album cover alone. But, combined in such an expert fashion, they speak perfectly to this release. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: Jan. 11, 2010
Photography: Tod Brody
Art direction: Asher Sarlin, Rostam Batmanglij
The album cover for Vampire Weekend's second full-length record is great on a number of levels. First, the model in the photograph, a woman named Ann Kirsten Kennis, is stunning in a lemon-yellow Polo shirt (immediately reflective of the Vampire boy's prep-school polish) and stays incredibly poised, despite the over-lit nature of the photograph. The photo is a candid 1983 Polaroid shot that band member Rostam Batmanglij apparently found while searching through archives from that year—the high-quality of the photograph led the band to chose it for the cover.
"To me, there's just something infinitely fascinating about a nice portrait of somebody, especially when she's got this ambiguous look, and people can read a lot into it," lead singer Ezra Koenig told MTV. "So we were immediately struck by it, and we all had our own interpretations of what her look was, but we just kind of felt like it fit the album and the theme of it. It made sense to me that the first album had an inanimate object on it, and this one has a person's face on it."
However, one person who was not struck by the use of the image was Kennis herself. In July 2010, she sued the band and their label, XL, for using the image of her without her permission—her daughter brought home a copy of the album and showed it to her. She dropped the lawsuit about a year later when the band paid her an unspecified amount of money. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: Feb. 21, 2012
Photography: Nacho Alegre, Lindsey Byrnes
Art direction: David J. Harrigan III
Label: Fueled By Ramen
Taken by the perfectly dreamy fashion and music photographer Nacho Alegre, the cover of the second album from fun. is the perfect visual capsule of the album's existential confusion and everything-on-the-line party attitude. It's a mysterious, vaguely scary photograph that, without being over-the-top polished, conveys that sense of recklessness and slight despair that seeps throughout the album: the blue light of morning streams in through what appears to be a hotel room window, a man on the floor cradling...something in his hand, about to set fire to it with a lighter. The grainy photograph possesses that quality of a lost memory or a daydream, with the heavy text above weighing on the scene like a nightmare. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: July 3, 2009
Photography: Tom Beard, Wade Fletcher
Art direction: Tabitha Denholm
Florence Welch had a set of artificial lungs created for the cover of her smash album Lungs. And, as it was revealed just after Lungs was nominated for a Mercury Prize, Orlando Weeks from the British band The Maccabees was the one behind the actual creation of the faux-lungs that covered Welch's chest. It was Welch's inspired idea, along with art direction by Tabitha Denholm. But the magical photograph came to life only through the lens of photographer Tom Beard. It's an absolutely magical shot, capturing the natural wonder and underlying power of Florence's music. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: Nov. 23, 2009
Photography: Hedi Slimane
Art direction: Julian Peploe Studio
Labels: Streamline, Konlive, Cherrytree, Interscope
As conceptual as Gaga got on her debut full-length album, The Fame, she was out to make an even stronger counterpoint with the follow-up EP, The Fame Monster. By the time the EP was released less than a year after the full-length, Gaga's force in the pop marketplace was unmistakable, and yet she still had to fight for the look on the cover of this album—her label thought it was too gothic. Fusing the styling of renowned editor Nicola Formichetti and the unmistakable photography of Hedi Slimane, both covers of The Fame Monster are alluring and gorgeous. "You don't know what pop is, because everyone was telling me I wasn't pop last year," she told Rolling Stone in 2009, "and now look—so don't tell me what pop is, I know what pop is." It is a look that would be followed up by countless artists in the years to come. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: Jan. 31, 2012
Album design: Mark Khair
The young Canadian artist Claire Boucher, better known as Grimes, is one of the most fascinating, multi-talented presences in the field today. She's got her hand in a lot of things, from fashion, to video direction, to party curating, to producing music, and of course performing. However, it's her visual prowess that really gets fans amped.
Case in point: the cover of her third LP Visions. A gleaming skull with jewels in its eyes whips its tongue through a field of elemental grit before being tied with a child-like bow. Grimes throws in iconography that was particularly suited to the moment of the album's release as well: an alien head weeping onto a pyramid, the eye of Horace, little candy hearts. The artwork here is as impressive and representative of its surroundings as it is its sound and creator. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: Jan. 31, 2012
Photography: Nicole Nodland
Art direction: David Bowden, Lana Del Rey
Labels: Polydor, Interscope, Stranger
Even if the music on Born to Die, the debut album from songstress Lana Del Rey, is, as Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield described it, "pop-starved," the cover itself is all the tragic pop-gloss that Lana tried to put forth on the record. There's something ominous about the photo, as bright as it is, possibly due to the shadows or whatever the shapes in the background are—there's something hiding just out of view. Or maybe it's how properly Lana can affect her detached and still-flawless persona to a simple gaze. The typography here is also an example of great design—a typeface called Steelfish, in this case extra bold—created in 2001 by Ray Larabie with an update in 2010, just in time for this cover to come out. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: July 10, 2012
Photography: Dave Eggar
Album artwork: Thomas Mastorakos, Aaron Martinez, Phil Toselli
Label: Def Jam
Frank Ocean took a simple route with the cover of his breakthrough album channel ORANGE. Employing the classic Cooper Black font—a staple of his Odd Future crew and hip-hop history, alike—next to a more modern, Sans-Serif font shows just how smart this dude is, looking back to the past, while clearly aware of his surroundings. And there's still that sense of something bubbling up beneath the surface, quite literally here, as the color spots of the camera flash come into view just behind the main focus of the image.
channel ORANGE is a strong enough album musically that its design visually didn't need much over-the-top haranguing—it says everything it needed to in three colors and two words. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: Oct. 28, 2013
Photography: Caroline Robert, Korey Richey
Art direction: Caroline Robert
Labels: Merge, Sonovox
Just last week, Arcade Fire dropped its much-anticipated fourth album, Reflektor. While the Canadian band's latest production is a chock full of sounds and rhythms drawn from Haitian culture—not unlike its previous albums—the second part of the two-disc recording contains "Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)" and "It's Never Over (Hey Orpheus)," songs which reference a pair of lovers from Greek mythology.
Reflektor's album cover features Auguste Rodin's 1893 sculpture of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus, a great musician who is said to have been trained by Apollo himself, and his dearly departed lover Eurydice are intertwined around one another and encompassed in a starry halo atop a galactic scenery. The darkness of the halo contrasts with the white, ashen figures, further evoking a sense of melancholy among listeners of the album. —Susan Cheng
Release date: March 23, 2012
Photography: Mert Alas & Marcus Piggott
Art direction: Giovanni Bianco
Labels: Live Nation, Interscope
Vaguely hallucinatory in color and presentation, the cover of Madonna's 12th album MDNA is as vibrant as it was bold. Featuring the performer wearing a scarlet dress behind ribbed glass, she looks fragmented, deconstructed by the various lenses she's been put under throughout the years. In this case, it is through the lens of photographers Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott, a pair of Europeans whose collaborative work is widely regarded as some of the best in the world.
Though they've done album covers for countless pop stars, Mert and Marcus (as their company name goes) achieve something truly eye-popping on this cover, even if that was through digital manipulation. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: Feb. 24, 2011
Photography: Roger Deckker
Artwork: Leif Podhajsky
As the Swedish recording artist known as Lykke Li progressed into new, darker areas with her second LP Wounded Rhymes, the cover art of the album naturally followed suit. That manifested in the creative direction of Leif Podhasjsky, who helped shape a cover that is, quite literally, wounded, marred by an unseen hand. Podhasjsky is often tapped to conduct the album design for music that features a psychedelic or altered experience—in this case altered by Lykke's intense depth of emotion.
It's the photograph itself, shot by Roger Deckker, that creates the most haunting aspect of the scene—the artist near a rough coastline, the ocean flat for miles below clouds, a cloak billowing out around her in the last moments of protection and comfort. A truly stunning, if not icy cold design. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: 24 April, 2012
Photography: Jason Schmidt
Santigold has made little secret of shaping her world to be exactly as she sees fit; the former record label A&R woman decided that was no longer what she wanted and instead alighted on the path to making herself a superstar, in whatever fashion she had to. That was never more apparent than on the cover—and through the title—of her sophomore album Master of My Make Believe.
She fashions herself in a number of ways here, including as a mafia don and as the "Bond-girl gold" (as she told T Magazine) with Alexander Wang-clad guards around her. Shot by Jason Schmidt, it is a composite of the three roles that makes this incredible, not to mention all of the fashion and art that inspired the photo shoot. The cover even features the first portrait of a woman ever painted by Kehinde Wiley—the painting hanging behind the don-Santi references the 18th-century painting Portrait of an Officer. An amazing composite. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: Nov. 14, 2008
Photography: Peter Lindbergh
Art direction: Fusako Chubachi
Labels: Music World, Columbia
In an effort to express herself directly and honestly, Beyonce spent more time on I am... Sasha Fierce than she had spent on an album since her days with Destiny's Child. (Disregarding how strange it might be to adopt a pseudonym, in order to create a direct honesty). This included the album cover: Beyonce addresses the camera directly, with very little makeup, her hair pulled away from her face. It was shot by renowned photographer Peter Lindbergh, which in itself accounts for only part of the cover's brilliance—though the album wasn't as universally acclaimed as her other work, Beyonce's creative vision and direction (alongside Fusako Chubachi) was something to admire, mirroring the intent of the album and its music quite effectively. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: July 7, 2010
Photography: Maya Arulpragasam
Art direction: Maya Arulpragasam, Aaron Parsons
Labels: N.E.E.T., XL, Interscope
One of the hallmarks of a good pop record is being able to clearly communicate with as broad a fan base as possible, by utilizing the tools of communication immediately at the disposal of that fan base. In the case of /\/\ /\ Y /\, this meant recognizing just how embedded M.I.A. has become in the culture of the Internet, not to mention how embedded signals of the Internet—YouTube sliders, round digital buttons, for instance—had become embedded in the culture at large. In many ways, M.I.A. was one of the first to combine the relationship between art, music, and the Internet into an audio and visual project that was bound to get an important conversation started. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: June 17, 2008
Photography: Michael Elins
Art direction: Ed Sherman
Katy Perry's breakthrough album One of the Boys is the singer's first recording released under the stage name "Katy Perry," and it's a far cry from her debut gospel album. Instead of choruses about faith, Perry sings infectious pop tunes about ex-boyfriends, the bipolarity of being young and in love, kissing girls, and enjoying it.
Resurrected as Katy Perry, the singer made her name as One of the Boys, with her cheeky, no-filter lyrics about drunken antics in Las Vegas and her bold attack on boyfriends who wronged her. Even the album cover of One of the Boys represents Perry's act of defiance, a rebelliousness not seen until then.
The cover features a coy yet daring Katy Perry posed on a lounge chair in a yard, surrounded by a white picket fence, plastic flamingos, posies, and a pink record player. The singer sits seductively poised, wearing a cropped top and high-waisted shorts which reveal her curvy features. Her gaze is aimed directly at the viewer while she bites the end of her sunglasses, as if beckoning new listeners to come hither. Flirty and fun, the album perfectly embodies Perry's first, major-label album. —Susan Cheng
Release date: Aug. 20, 2012
Photography: Paul Scala
Artwork: Kate Moross
Labels: PMR, Interscope, Island
Jessie Ware's Devotion is remarkable in its ability to balance the down-to-earth nature of the singer, while giving her massive voice the space to run off. There is a sense of that in the album's cover art as well, where the singer is done up like a capital-D Diva, too slick (literally, her hair is so slick), glowing like a spotlight, rather than just keeping the spotlight on her. And yet, there's a sense of vulnerability to the shot, something about her face that says she is afraid. And isn't that part of what devotion is about? Facing your fears, to put your faith in the radiance of goodness, and only looking to what's next? Perfectly executed. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: July 27, 2010
Album design: David Rager
Label: Mexican Summer
Bethany Cosentino loves cats. Specifically, she loves her cat, who goes by the name of Snacks. So of course the kitty is featured on the cover of Cosentino's band Best Coast's debut album, Crazy For You. Figuring out how to incorporate that fell into the hands of David Rager, a California-born artist who now lives in Paris. Rager did an impeccable job of melding the forward-chugging, sunburnt, beachside aesthetic of the band—without sacrificing Snacks to the Photoshop rubbish bin, even if he had to turn the cat's butt into the coastal edge of California. "The image that its made up from is actually an old matchbook cover that I found a long time ago," he told Pitchfork in 2010. "It had been sitting there with me in the back of my head. As soon as this project came around, I instantly remembered what I had seen and thought I could incorporate it somehow." Light it up! —Dale Eisinger
Release date: Nov. 22, 2010
Photography: Johan Renck
Art direction: Lucy McRae, Mary Fagot
Robyn's Body Talk mini-album series was a consistently piecemeal affair, coming together as a debut full-length, which was a compilation of the three previous mini-LPs. That is reflected on the cover of the album, where small colored boxes dangle in front of the singer's actual body, creating a cobbled-cube facsimile of the Swedish singer that appears to be just inches from her true form—a nice analogy for songs like "Fembot," and a continuation of the cut-and-paste artwork that adorned the three previous Body Talk installments that made up this disc. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: Sept. 13, 2013
Photography: Jang Hyun Hong
Art direction: Hyunju Lee
Label: YG Entertainment
There's a Kit-Kat joke in here somewhere...break off a peace? At least, break off a piece of the peace symbol to create a new symbol. What exactly is the young Korean star saying by appropriating this image, on an album named for political upheaval? G-Dragon is used to taking things that come from Western pop-consciousness and refashioning them for his own use—why not this symbol, one originally created to advocate nuclear disarmament?
In a truly globalized environment, where pop singers trade across borders with ease, a singer like G-Dragon is less of an anomaly and more of a visionary, even if the semaphore buried in the original symbol might not hold up in this new iteration. But what does work is that East/West divide that emptying out the right side of this icon offers—the roundness, the oneness of the circle, is emphasized over the original symbol, giving a new global weight to the international smash-hit album's visuals. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: Jan. 19, 2011
Photography: Lauren Dukoff
Album design: Adele, Phil Lee
Adele's mythology as an artist comes with a lot of heartbreak. There's that storied guy who broke her heart, lingering somewhere in the back of her mind and at the forefront of her songs. But that's giving too little credit to the resilience of the singer, who seems—at least in her songs and on her album cover—to get over her despair by pensive, rational thought. Beyond the mere severity and drama of this photo, it is technically perfectly executed in classic album cover fashion—nothing is crowded, the lighting is perfect, and Adele looks flawless. And yet, there's that weightlessness to the way Adele scratches her head, as if this is all just a passing thought in the journey to the next chapter. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: Aug. 18, 2010
Photography: Autum DeWilde, Davis Factor, Lauren Dukoff, Rosie Hardy, Travis Schneider
Label: A&M Octone
Rosie Hardie was a young 19 when she snapped the cover of Maroon 5's Hands All Over, an incredible, surreal, sexy image—quite the feat considering she was also the model in the shot. She took the photo in her bedroom in Buxton, England in purportedly under an hour; she combined the hands post-production, digitally. The band's management had discovered her work through Flickr and contacted her.
"At first, I thought it was a scam (because, seriously, there was no way Maroon 5 wanted to work with me)" she told the official Maroon 5 website in 2010, "but I followed it through anyway—and before I knew it, we were putting together the final touches for their album! It still doesn't feel real. I look at the cover and I know that I made that picture but my brain is struggling to connect the magnitude of it all!" Dreams do come true." —Dale Eisinger
Release date: Nov. 11, 2013
Art direction: Jeff Koons, Lady Gaga
Labels: Streamline, Interscope
For Lady Gaga, ARTPOP is by no means the same as pop art, though the distinction is slight. Here, on the cover of her album, dropping Nov. 11, the commentary seems to be whether or not she is the art object, or if she's the one creating the art—it's a mirroring exercise. "One second I'm a Koons, then suddenly the Koons is me!" she tweeted upon unveiling the cover. And yes, the overlord pop-artist Jeff Koons designed the cover, which features a barely-clothed Gaga sculpture (is she the Koons?) with a signature blue metallic orb covering her downstairs (more mirroring). The next step in her examination of public binaries, such as public/private and celebrity/citizen, the visual work here, paired with her lamentations on whether or not she is art, point to another dual struggle, especially with Botecelli's The Birth of Venus exploding in the background. It's a highbrow/lowbrow struggle, the classic pop-art push-pull. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: Aug. 17, 2009
Photography: The XX
Art direction: Phil Lee
Label: Young Turks
As with much of their process, the three members of The XX had everything to do with the creation of their self-titled LP's cover: it is the band's design. What works here is the binary that pulls in all directions—black and white is classically immersive in any visual context, and the simple, heavily weighted X on the cover pushes and pulls at the boundaries of the frame. Yes, it's almost beyond simple. But anything the cover lacks in design flourish, it makes up for by being clean, effective, and startlingly unpretentious—kind of like the band itself, despite their own severe personal looks. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: Feb. 22, 2011
Photography: Chaz Bundick
Art direction: Chaz Bundick
The album cover for Chaz Bundick's 2011 Underneath the Pine was both strange and lurid, a close-up of the artist's mouth as chews on an alien, overtly feminine object. As he told Pitchfork in 2011, the discomfiting object is a pomelo fruit given to him by a journalist. The photo was taken by the musician himself, as well, and then tweaked in Photoshop until it resembled a drawing (Bundick was once a graphic design student). While Bundick laughs that it is simply pieces of fruit dangling from his mouth, he doesn't deny there's something odd about the image. "I thought the fruit had a really cool texture, and it pretty much resembles female parts; you don't think of a pomelo as a feminine fruit until you peel apart the wedges. I liked that aspect because I had never really shown the almost-perverted side of me," he told Pitchfork's Ryan Dombal. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: Aug. 30, 2011
Photography: Brian Lantelme
Devonté Hynes, the man behind Blood Orange, is no stranger to creating work for a wide array of artists: from Solange to Florence and the Machine, to Theophilus London and Basement Jaxx. But there's something all encompassing to his work, an unmistakable fingerprint throughout the scope of his production. Whether that can be translated into how he manifested visuals for his album Coastal Grooves might be far-fetched, but being inspired by transgender icons, like Octavia St. Laurent while he was wrapping production on the LP, certainly opens up one's world to broader experience. On the cover is an androgynous model, possibly a found vintage photograph, a gorgeous and glam shot that is all about fun, in an early '90s vibe of post-Art Deco and lace body stockings. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: Oct. 19, 2011
Photography: Kate Peters, Phil Harvey, Sarah Lee
Art direction: Tappin Gofton
Besides top charting songs like "Paradise," and its vibrant album cover, Coldplay's Mylo Xyloto is a work of art in itself. Together with filmmaker Mark Osborne, the band created a Orwellian narrative about an imaginary world plagued by an oppressor, intent on purging all the sound and color from the streets—perhaps a reflection of the band's own sentiments the way graffiti and art is treated today. It makes sense then that the cover of Mylo Xyloto comprises graffiti done by the band themselves, with help from British street artist Paris and design duo Tappin Gofton who designed X & Y in 2005.
Initially Paris was supposed to be a mere teacher, aiding in the band's creation of the graffiti featured on the Mylo Xyloto cover. In the end, however, the artist collaborated with the band members to create a wall bursting with dynamics colors and words embodying the band's story and lyrics. Ultimately, the album art ended up featuring not one but two covers. One displays the completed wall with the words "Mylo Xyloto" emblazoned in an original typeface, while the other shows the wall hidden beneath sheet of gray with the letters "M X" cut out in the center." —Susan Cheng
Release date: July 20, 2012
Photography: Mark Borthwick
Art direction: Anita Marisa Boriboon
Passion Pit front man Michael Angelakos and British photographer Mark Borthwick created the cover for the band's second album, Gossamer. The over-saturated, Steadman-splattered cover is perfectly in the wheelhouse of both Borthwick and Passion Pit. If you examine the former's shots, you see many Lomo-fied, color-dumped images. As for the music of Angelakos, it often hints at drug-addled mysteries that cut through sun-soaked celebrations—it's all there on the cover. Together, they formed the perfect blend of impressionist punch and absolute will, all while reaching for the sky. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: March 15, 2013
Photography: Tom Munro
After a six-year hiatus from the recording studio, Justin Timberlake returned to the forefront of the music scene in 2013 with a heavy hitting album, featuring a new "Suit & Tie" wardrobe, an endorsement from rap mastermind Jay Z, and a renewed outlook on his own life and career. With an album title like The 20/20 Experience, it seems only appropriate to have Timberlake posed behind an eye refractor, peering out at his viewers on the album cover. Though his face is concealed by the instrument, the singer still manages to evoke a sense of assertiveness and poise decked out in his dapper black suit and bow-tie. While it's true that Timberlake has always written and produced tracks on romance, on The 20/20 Experience Timberlake allows fans a glimpse into his current life with his catchy lines and melodies. —Susan Cheng
Release date: June 24, 2011
Photography: Ellen Von Unwerth, Greg Gex, Tony Duran
Art direction: Adam Larson
Labels: Parkwood, Columbia
Beyonce spared no lux expense for the cover of her 2011 album 4. Every aspect of the image seeped with tasteful extravagance. Wearing an Alexandre Vauthier fox-fur stole, embellished by Swarovski crystals by Lesage embroiderers, Beyonce posed on the rooftop of the Hotel Meurice in Paris for the photo. Though the singer was dressed in designers who were lesser-known at the time, the rarity of the clothing and the extravagance of the setting sent a message that was unmistakable: Beyonce was no longer just unattainable. She was now untouchable. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: Oct. 4, 2010
Art direction: Nick Malvone Bilardello
Labels: Atlantic, Elektra
Months before Bruno Mars dropped his debut studio album Doo-Wops & Hooligans, the world already knew all about singer from "Just the Way You Are." Chock-full of infectious melodies and feel good lyrics, Doo-Wops & Hooligans became an instant top charter in both the U.S. and internationally, receiving seven Grammy award nominations. With this album, it became immediately clear to the world that Bruno Mars would have a long career ahead of him, as depicted in the path left behind by a black jet on the cover of Doo-Wops & Hooligans'. The album's sunny hues convey a sense of self-confidence and the singer's outlook on the road ahead. Meanwhile, the silhouette in the lower right, presumably a representation of Bruno Mars, reveals humility in the wake of so much success. —Susan Cheng
Release date: Sept. 23, 2013
Photography: Fredrik Etoall
Art direction: Virgilio Tzaj
Labels: TEN, Big Beat Records
The Swedish duo known as Icona Pop have long played off one another's strengths, a dynamic never more apparent than on the cover of their international debut LP, This Is... Icona Pop. Here, they meld into a kind of living sculpture, flaunting their tattoos, backlit with all the gray washed subtlety of an Ansel Adams landscape, and managing to have some kind of fun in the process. As high fashion or classic as this photograph feels, the typography perfectly situates viewers in the era of the album's release: pixelated, unpretentious, and so polished it becomes roughly new again. That's exactly what Icona Pop can mean. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: Oct. 4, 2013
Photography: Tyrone Lebon
Album Design: Thomas Manaton
Miley Cyrus created quite a stir after her controversial performance at this year's MTV VMAs. Despite critics and haters alike, the pop singer-cum-twerk queen went onto release the equally scandalous "Wrecking Ball" video and finally, Bangerz earlier this month. Say what you will about her sensational, headline-making antics, but it's hard to deny Miley's ability to sing, with the chorus of "We Can't Stop" still echoing in everybody's head. Even the album art, is visually appealing and original.
The album cover of Bangerz portrays Miley in a short black coat, turned to the side, glancing coquettishly at her viewers with her hand posed against her signature red pout. Behind her is a Miami Vice-reminiscent backdrop of palm trees and the album title "Bangerz" in stylized, fluorescent pink neon lights. Just like with her videos and performances, Bangerz is meant to provoke. —Susan Cheng
Release date: Jan. 6, 2009
Album artwork: Akiyoshi Kitaoka
Album Design: Rob Carmichael
Animal Collective have made little secret of their fascination with the boundaries of perception and hallucination. For this album cover, they actually decided to create artwork that bent the rules of perception, namely through the use of a kind of optical illusion called illusory motion, pioneered by a Japanese psychologist Akiyoshi Kitaoka. In this case, it's the way the "leaves" are arranged and rotated across a grid, evenly—the actual color and background of the leaves doesn't matter here. What gives the leaves the illusion of animation is the half-black, half-white outline.
The blog idsgn explains it on a much more scientific level: "It is known that patterns with a certain amount of regularity and repetitiveness (such as this one) will excite a large number of neurons in parallel, enhancing the impression of motion even further. As visible above, a small selection of the leaves is insufficient to generate noticeable motion, but the massively parallel signals from the highly repetitive patterns together produce a strong perceived motion." —Dale Eisinger
Release date: April 13, 2010
Photography: Josh Cheuse
Art direction: Anthony Ausgang, Josh Cheuse
MGMT had Los Angeles-based "lowbrow" artist Anthony Ausgang create the cover for the band's third studio album Congratulations, released in 2010. Andrew VanWyngarden, lead vocalist and guitarist of the two-man band, has said in interviews that Congratulations was inspired by ecstacy and surfing, aliens in his head, and, well, a whole lot of drugs.
Ausgang's illustration embodies the Brooklyn duo's psychedelic music, consisting of a trippy, purple and pink checkered pattern as the backdrop. In the foreground of the cover, a frantic, double-headed cat on a surfboard attempts to flee from a rising, Sonic the Hedgehog-reminiscent wave, which looks like it's about to devour him whole. All of this sounds really weird until you consider the fact that it's MGMT.
So what does it all mean? VanWyngarden doesn't even really know. "For whatever reason, I'm still dreaming about surfing all the time, and waves, and I don't really know if there's symbolism there," he told Exclaim!, "But I think it's pretty easy to interpret our album cover as feeling a little overwhelmed by this kind of beast that we created that we hadn't really intended to create. We feel like the cat on the surfboard sometimes: about to be swallowed up by it." So there you have it. —Susan Cheng
Release date: June 9, 2009
Photography: Jason Frank Rothenberg
Minimalist and virtually devoid of any color, save for the two blotches of blue and red, the cover of the Dirty Projectors' 2009 release Bitte Orca is a throwback to the band's third album Slaves' Graves and Ballads from 2004. Dirty Projectors frontman Dave Longstreth teamed up with Rob Carmichael, who's designed covers for Animal Collective, and came up with the idea to re-create the 2004 cover.
Instead of featuring Longstreth on the face of the album, however, Bitte Orca's cover actually pays homage to two of the Brooklyn band's female members. "[Longstreth]'s seen as the frontman, so anybody he's facing, there may be too much dominance," Carmichael explained to Pitchfork. As half of the band is composed of women, it seemed right to spotlight two of the female bandmates. The idea was to "evoke a sense of old-school European paintings and the female form," he said. Longstreth, on the other hand, is pictured on the back of the album, facing who else but Fredrich Nietzsche. —Susan Cheng
Release date: Aug. 2, 2010
Photography: Gabriel Jones, Joey Matthews, Stéphane Fiore
Art direction: Vincent Morisset
Labels: Merge, Mercury
Weeks before Arcade Fire released The Suburbs in 2010, fans of the Canadian band were delighted to find out that the album would come in not one but eight covers. The Suburbs' main album cover is a faded image of an old-fashioned car parked in front of a brick red house and a tilted palm tree, while the other seven feature a similar composition of the same car facing some sort of suburban setting.
Only the scenery and color varies, but each of them is symbolic of Arcade Fire's idea of creating an album that is "neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs" but "a letter from the suburbs," Win Butler told NME. Together, the eight album covers seem to evoke a sense of nostalgia for idyllic days that have long gone. —Susan Cheng
Release date: March 31, 2009
Photography: Urs Fisher
Art direction: Karen O, Seb Marling, Urs Fisher
Acclaimed conceptual artists, Urs Fisher, took the lead in art direction for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' third album, It's Blitz!. The cover featured nothing more than a high-speed photograph of a fist crushing a raw egg into oblivion, yet it was something entirely new.
It was actually the hand of the band's frontwoman Karen O in the photograph, and it's not hard to grasp a sense of her personality from just that: the intensity of the pose juxtaposed with the glam of the painted nails and the oddity of the egg. Vintage Fisher and classic YYYs. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: Oct. 18, 2011
Photography: Anouck Bertin
Art direction: Anouck Bertin, Anthony Gonzalez
Backlit ingeniously with the kind of red-blue binary that implies sirens blaring outside in the night, there's something just as creepy about the cover of M83's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming as there is something sweet and innocent. The children seem to be in an understated, surreal peril, one of them wearing a kimono and the other in some kind of monster costume that's a cross between ALF and Jeff Goldblum's The Fly.
The cover was done up by Anouck Bertin, a New York-based fashion photographer—she designed and executed the concept with the deft touch of a post-modern visually-inclined Kafka. The dream-language is strong with this one. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: May 17, 2010
Photography: Ruvan Wijesooriya
Art direction: Michael Vadino
Labels: DFA, Virgin
James Murphy and LCD Soundsystem were strong in the spotlight, but with the kind of humility that pointed to them always being the awkward dance music aficionados fans look up to without pretense. When the cover of the band's third and final album This is Happening was released in 2010, they gave off a sense of that: Murphy, looking down at his feet, still dancing away, the indie-rock badges of little one-inch pins worn like medals on his lapel, his hair tousled unassumingly, shirt coming un-tucked.
The visual impact of the band's album is heartfelt and true, because Murphy never had to posture as an artist. His commitment to his craft, and his ability to abandon it at the height of his powers, shows that. The pose and candid nature of this album cover, despite how popular Murphy's band had become, perfectly encapsulated the LCD Soundsystem ethos: this is happening because it already has. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: March 21, 2011
Photography: Lamar Taylor, Drop
Art direction: Ben Swantek
Abel Tesfaye got things stirring back in 2011 when he released his first mixtape House of Balloons. He was anonymous, but a bit over the top, posting nude, scratched photos of women to his Tumblr page, and once in a while, he would appear for a moment as someone turned the camera around.
One of these images would end up being the cover for House of Balloons—a startling, just-this-side-of-graphic photo of a naked woman in a bathtub, covered in balloons. Sure, the photo itself was alarming and powerful, but it was the overall design of the album that really pushed this one over the top. The typography, the tracklisting on the cover, and the stark white borders all give a sense of a classic album cover while the music inside was incredibly forward-thinking. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: Aug. 24, 2010
Photography: Will Cotton
Art direction: Jo Ratcliffe
Um, look. It'd be silly not to think that Katy Perry's good looks and ease in sexuality helped to move a fair share of albums. Whether it's fireworks shooting out of her chest or her chest shooting out of whatever she's wearing, Perry's never been afraid to show off her assets, which is saying something for the cover of her third LP Teenage Dream, where she's lying face down.
It was painted photorealistically by Will Cotton and revealed over a live webcast. The painting captures an otherworldly sense that a photograph just couldn't have. Nevertheless, it features Perry lying naked in clouds of cotton candy, which, in and of itself, is miraculous for at least three reasons. One way or another, it's the teenage dream of every kid: A world where a beautiful woman waits for you on infinite piles of pink cotton candy. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: March 18, 2013
Illustration: Jillian Tamaki
Art direction: Pierre Le Ny
Label: Green United Music
Even if the artwork for the debut album by Woodkid was a little hard to read in stasis (at least digitally), the way he released it was stunning: an animation that fluttered in and out of focus in a perfectly metronymic way to his fluttering neofolk tunes—he created the video himself. But this level of quality was to be expected. As a visual artist, Yoann Lemoine had already directed videos for Katy Perry and Lana Del Rey, among others.
And even if Lemoine studied visual art (he did, at the Emile Cohl School for illustration, where he graduated with honors), it would have taken too much of the lion's share to draw the artwork himself. He enlisted the work of Jillian Tamaki, a New York-based designer, to draw the cover of his debut LP—a fascinating, embossed mask that contradicts the title of the album, The Golden Age. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: April 21, 2009
Photography: Autumn de Wilde
Labels: Star Trak, Interscope
A larger-than-life geisha imposes the scene, wrapped in tulle, as the two Harvard-alums known as Chester French finagle expressions variously cloying and somewhat bemused—no one looks exactly comfortable here, including the stoic, pink-cheeked centerpiece.
Four years later, there is still something sad about this photograph, whether it's in the heavy shadows, or the almost bondage-like garb of everyone involved, or the icy glare of the geisha—there's a balance here that fits in right next to the band's cheery tunes. —Dale Eisinger
Release date: Sept. 30, 2013
Photography: Pierre Auroux, Tom Beard
Album design: Marek Polewski
Perhaps it's still too early to say, but HAIM's breakthrough Days Are Gone may be the start of a huge career for the three sisters. The album's hip-swaying songs, which they wrote, offer a look into their sunny, romantic lives.
The album art, too, seems to reflect HAIM's bright prospects. Seated in three fold-up chairs on a big green lawn, the heads of the HAIM sisters are turned to the left, eyes averted and covered in shades. —Susan Cheng
Release date: June 19, 2012
Artwork: Fiona Apple
Art direction: Eric Roinestad
Labels: Clean Slate, Epic
Drawn by the singer, The Idler Wheel...'s cover may very well embody Fiona Apple's notions of herself. Rendered on what looks like a page from a notebook are disoriented scribbles, which seem to form the abstract image of a contemplative person.
Most of the drawing is colorless, save for a few gaps the singer has colored in with shades of red, blue, and yellow, along with the unnerving red background. The artwork imparts a sense of confusion and chaos, also found within Apple's tumultuous, volatile songs. —Susan Cheng
Release date: Jan. 19, 2009
Photography: Naoya Ikegami, Don Felix Cervantes
Art direction: Antony
Label: Secretly Canadian
Antony and the Johnsons actually dedicated their 2009 album The Crying Light to multiple works of art. The cover features Kazuo Ohno, a leading butoh dancer, who passed away in 2010. Antony Hegarty, the band's frontman, actually stumbled upon the black and white photograph, shot by Naoya Ikegami, in the streets of France back in 1987.
Twenty-two years later, Antony decided to spotlight the dancer one of his biggest inspirations. "In performance I watched him cast a circle of light upon the stage, and step into that circle, and reveal the dreams and reveries of his heart," he said. "...He's kind of like my art parent." —Susan Cheng
Release date: Sept. 12, 2011
Photography: Tina Tyrell
Art direction: Annie Clark
St. Vincent's third studio album Strange Mercy is an unusual combination of the familiar and the unknown. The songstress encompasses topics like being a woman and societal expectations of her music, singing lyrics like "Bodies, can't you see what everybody wants from you?" In a way, Strange Mercy also feels distant and cold, offering no direct insight into the singer's thoughts.
Her lyrics are straightforward and understated, and her album cover is just as much of an enigma. Photographed by Tina Tyrell and designed by St. Vincent herself, the suggestive cover features nothing but the singer's parted lips and teeth, wrapped in a white plastic. Like her music, the cover is also subject to interpretation. As St. Vincent sings: "If you say it is, then I guess it is what you say it is." —Susan Cheng
Release date: Feb. 26, 2013
Photography: Jody Rogac
Art direction: Thunderhorse
The concept for the cover of Autre Ne Veut's album Anxiety was brilliant from the get-go, but plagued by copyright issues surrounding the use of Edvard Munch's famous painting The Scream. As he told Pitchfork's Carrie Battan, "We recreated a picture taken during the sale of The Scream at the Sotheby's auction. The idea is just to take the modernist trope of anxiety—The Scream—and place it in the modern capitalist framework."
Even after removing the painting, the album and its cover turned out incredible. When the music site asked the label for comment on the painting, they simply, brilliantly said that it was stolen. —Dale Eisenger
Release date: May 23, 2011
Art direction: Anita Marisa Boribon
Labels: Startime, Columbia
Illustrated by artist Japayork, a good friend of lead singer Mark Foster, the album cover shows a horde of stone-faced yet impish creatures carrying matches, flash lights, and other forms of torches. Besides the yellow from the glow of the light, the illustration is a black and white doodle, composed of various textures. Simple and lighthearted, this cover offers listeners a perfect representation of the band, who was still relatively new to people at the time.
Curiously enough, the band's drummer Mark Pontius told Seattle Weekly that he originally argued against using the drawing as the band's first album cover. "We argued about that artwork forever. I think I was the only one who didn't like it. I love his artwork, but I had a different image in my mind for the record cover. But I ended up being happy that I lost the fight because it ended up that the characters on the front became this whole world that we ended up including in our live show and on our merch and our website." —Susan Cheng